July 15th – Day 1
There is something about train journeys. Something that makes it stand starkly apart from the other modes of transportation, say, flying. No, it’s not the obvious luxury, comfort and the promptness of flying versus swaying around in the crowded compartment of a train. Rather, I feel it is the rawness of humanity that is on display during train journeys. There is a downright lack of decorum or a need for acceptable civility among the Humans of Train Journey, unlike the proposed poise of Humans of an Aircraft. The best specimens of humanity are found around you, some of them become friends for the duration of the journey and some, for life. I love train journeys, and I couldn’t be happier that we, the 10 Xplorians, are travelling to Kashmir, our first destination of this one month long trip, in train. The journey begins.
July 16th – Day 2
Having a beautiful cottage nestled in the midst of mountains, surrounded by dense, well-aligned Devdar trees is jaw-dropping enough. Having a pristine brook gurgling right by the side of the above mentioned abode is hitting JACKPOT. Nature’s jackpot, if I might add. Welcome to Chatpal, an untouched piece of heaven in the interiors of Kashmir. The view I woke up to after the day (late night actually) we reached was made of the stuff that takes away people’s breath. Unapologetically. Like a boss. I thought about my tiny rented apartment in Mumbai, the senselessly crowded streets, and the scheduled life I was living in the confines of a job and a general lack of time for things, people and places. Life, right now, at this very moment was a dream come true. A beautiful dream come true. The day has just started and I am already swarmed with options as to how to spend the day. A walk to the nearest village Thimran? A trek up the nearest hill? Read a book near the brook? Ha! That rhymed. I think I will go with the third option. See you around.
July 17th – Day 3
Chatpal is a sleepy, remote village which more than satiates all your cravings related to solitude, peace and unadulterated natural beauty. But it also means that you may have to venture out to the nearest town for all your other needs. Today we set out for Ananthnag, the nearest city, to buy food supplies and for exploring the peripheral provinces of Chatpal. Reaching Ananthnag, the first word that came to my mind is, ‘serious’. I thought, ‘wow, this is a serious town right here’. The reason was the number of army people all around, on constant vigilance. Their stern glare pierced into us as we walked around and did our shopping. The civilians, I observed, were carrying on with their lives as if it’s a normal part of their lives – having fully-equipped military officials roaming around with arms. I wondered how the civilians must have come to terms with this as a part of their daily lives, of having to live a life that demands constant vigilance and support. Our drivers urged us to finish the shopping as soon as possible and head back to Chatpal as Ananthnag is a sensitive area. We had a hearty Punjabi thali for lunch and bought Kashmiri souvenirs for our friends (yes, already!) and headed back to Chatpal, our postcard-perfect valley.
July 18th – Day 4
I celebrated Eid for the first time. With a Kashmiri family I met for the first time. I am overwhelmed by the hospitality I received and the love that came our way like an avalanche. I feel humbled and honored. Firdoos, the host, is a friend of one of my fellow travelers and we were all invited to his house for the celebration. They had prepared a delectable spread for us, each delicacy sending shivers down our taste buds. For me, it was nothing short of a revelation, as most of the dishes were new to me. (I am a South Indian). I stuffed myself to the point until I thought my ribs will burst and the food will splatter all around. I left the house with not just a full stomach but also a mind filled with happiness. Eid Mubarak.
July 19th – Day 5
My biggest concern regarding this trip to the northern most part of India was my South Indian-ness. That is, my lack of fluency in Hindi language. My Hindi speaking skills is already a running joke in the group and there was little I could do about it. It was understood that we all have to venture out on our own, alone or in small groups, and find our own experiences. Create our own stories. Arrive at our own destinations. Today, Tapshi, Rashi and I trekked to the nearest village Thimran, to get a first-hand glimpse of the lives of the inhabitants. We had our trepidation and uncertainties about walking into a village, our appearances being stark anomalies that this comely village has probably ever endured. But we were in for a great surprise. Few minutes’ walk into the village and we were already invited to one of the houses for tea, by an old lady who was sitting outside the house, chilling. Soon, half of the village joined us. Kids, mothers, grannies, all came to ‘witness’ us. We were promptly served with tea and biscuits. And what followed were conversations that broadly covered our reason to come to a relatively obscure village in Kashmir, our backgrounds, about our team members, about our stay in the govt. guest house, our marital status, our societal status and much more. Most of the talking part was done by Tapshi and Rashi as I relayed mostly on gestures and sheepish smiling. But not once I felt disconnected from them, not once I felt an urge to go back to my room and do something that is in my comfort zone. Not once I stopped feeling immense love for each one of them in the room, gazing at us in utter amazement, as we shared our stories.
July 20th – Day 6
You ever get the feeling when you are in a new place, and everyone is making structured plans to explore the nearby spots inch by inch, and you are like, “No, NOPE, I’m going to chill with myself today.”? Well, that’s me. Today is one of those days. Everyone has set out for the nearest trekking spots or villages while I am preparing myself to reach a zen state near the brook, that I have fallen in love with. A brook near the house! So, it’s just unlimited amounts of tea and me and the brook today, on our last day in Chatpal.